Merging the Montecito Sanitary and Water Districts: A Foolhardy Step Toward Cityhood

By Eileen Read   |   April 22, 2021

By Charles C. Read & Eileen White Read

The Montecito “water wars,” circa 2015-2020, brought ugly, big-city political shenanigans that shattered the peaceful commonweal of our village. We all remember the misleading mailings that implied Montecito was unlawfully dumping sewage in the ocean. 

The $100,000 campaign budgets amassed to get a seat on a water board; personal attacks on agency managers and incumbent directors; political dirty tricks such as publicly sharing cease-and-desist letters; a constant stream of misleading “advertorials” promoting certain candidates – we had it all.

As longtime residents dedicated to sustainability, environmental responsibility, and water conservation, we breathed a sigh of relief when, after the most recent elections, community peace appeared to be achieved with the $33 million desalination contract between the Montecito Water District and Santa Barbara. 

This essentially enabled our wealthy and generous village to subsidize 46% of the restarted Charles E. Meyer Desalination Plant’s operations, making water resources available to a far larger number of less affluent fellow Santa Barbara County residents, as well as to ourselves. 

We are following and supporting the Montecito Sanitary District’s plan to build a $5 million wastewater recycling plant, and we join our fellow villagers in eagerly awaiting the hiring of a new general manager, following the retirement of the widely respected Diane Gabriel. We are looking forward to learning how the new water and sanitary district professionals and directors intend to operate the agencies in order to conserve our limited water resources going forward. 

Therefore, we were rather startled by the recent Montecito Journal guest editorial by anti-water-conservation gadfly Bob Hazard, which appears to be both misleading and out-of-date. His subject is the working relationship between – and vital environmental decisions that will be made by – the Montecito water and sanitary boards. 

In his argument, Hazard attempts to manipulate the reader into a false conclusion: That action to further sustainability and “water security” is inextricably connected with joining the two boards into one. However, we can discern no problem with Montecito continuing to maintain separate sanitary and water districts, nor with those boards working cooperatively, along with other local, regional, and state entities. They will need to work hand-in-hand on activities such as water desalination and recycling, rehabilitation of reservoirs, groundwater restoration, and so on. 

Merging the two boards is a political football that could be a first step toward something no reasonable villager wants: to become a city.

Widespread consensus exists throughout California’s coastal areas, from Morro Bay to San Diego, for reclaiming wastewater before it’s flushed into the ocean. No argument there, and in Montecito the water and sanitary boards have been discussing mechanisms, plans and funding strategies. But the working relationship between Montecito’s environmental agencies is a completely separate issue from the political one. 

In reality, there currently is no strife between the water and sanitary boards, and there hasn’t been since the “Water Security Team” won nine out of the total of 10 seats via elections in 2016 through 2020. 

Hazard knows this because he served in a voluntary capacity as fundraiser, political strategist, donor, and “advertorial writer” for the “team.” Some of the nine community members who are now water and sanitary agency directors advertised and campaigned together, published op-eds with joint bylines, and generally stated their similar views openly to the community. If you have attended the board meetings or read the minutes, you know that the sanitary and water boards already have very cordial relations. 

Why then is Hazard resurrecting his old arguments, made relentlessly in diatribe after diatribe? We suspect Hazard’s real problem might be that the current water and sanitary board members are taking their roles seriously and want to be careful and deliberate in executing their duties as elected public servants, following the law and ethical procedures required of their public offices. 

Or might it be that Hazard’s actual, but unstated, agenda is for the Montecito Water District to take over the sanitary district, tear down its office building across from the Santa Barbara Cemetery and sell off some of its land to fund a giant $16 million water treatment plant? If that is his agenda, or whatever his true agenda is, he should state it rather than reviving an old straw-man argument.  

Or might his motive be a grab for political control? Recall that Hazard was the subject of an article in the Santa Barbara Independent on July 25, 2019, exposing his lobbying campaign to convince Santa Barbara County Supervisor Das Williams to support a community services district that would have combined Montecito’s fire, water, sanitary, and library agencies into quasi-city agency. The plan had no visible support in our village. 

At the time, Charles Newman, chair of the Montecito Planning Commission, said there was “a dearth of community participation” in this unilateral scheme, which many believed was an attempt to turn our village governance over to a single set of five all-powerful commissars. 

As has been proven time and time again, our wonderful American democracy works best with maximum citizen participation – as well as unbridled transparency. Many of us believe the water and sanitary boards are doing their jobs in a commendable manner and recognize that their work is far more complex and important to the future of our village than the unnecessary step of consolidation, or the foolhardy march toward cityhood. 

We believe our community needs to hear directly from those public servants whom we have elected to governance roles for our water and sanitation districts, and from some of the professionals and consultants on whom they rely. 

We should not be relying on information filtered through gadflies. 

In particular, since the desalination contract was signed during COVID, many villagers have unanswered questions about it, and also about plans for wastewater recycling, water banking, rehabilitation of reservoirs, and water conservation efforts by homeowners, country clubs, schools, and businesses. Because there has been little opportunity during COVID for open discussion of water and sanitation issues, we respectfully call on both agencies to schedule a joint public information and question-and-answer session later this year when it can be held in person. 

Perhaps it might be sponsored by the Montecito Journal and moderated by Gwyn Lurie, who so ably handled the 1st District Board of Supervisors forum.


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